It’s Time to Define Fascism

 

Among the many epithets the Über-Left hurls against its opponents – racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, etc. – a persistent tendency has been to scream. “Fascist, Nazi, etc.”  

For whatever the reason, the Internet search engine, Google, has redefined fascism as a right-wing political and social movement.  Does Google want to get in on the Left’s favored tactic?

Lest anyone think that cries of “fascist, Nazi, etc.” somehow belong to the past, watch scenes of the violence at the University of California – Berkeley in early February 2017, and count the number of times the loonies charged that Milo Yiannopoulos – a flamboyantly gay Trump supporter – was a fascist, Nazi, etc.

Claiming that Yiannopoulos is a Hitlerite is strange indeed, if one remembers how the Nazis under Hitler treated homosexuals.

(I’m not rushing to Yiannopoulos’s defense.  Before the Berkeley riots I had not heard of him, and still don’t know what to make of him.)

If we’re going to bandy about the F-word – not that one, another one:  fascism – it behooves us to get a firm understanding of what the term means.  The corpus dealing with diverse facets of fascism in general and National Socialism in particular is too large and diverse to encapsulate in a short essay.  There is, however, a book by an expert on the subject:  Stanley Payne’s, Fascism:  Comparison and Definition (1980).  Payne’s book is concise, is not suffused with Marxist or neo-Marxist cant, and does not suffer from political correctness run amok.  Payne is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and is regarded as a major analyst of fascism.

Although there were harbingers of fascism in Europe as long ago as the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, Louis Napoléon’s authoritarian regime in France between 1852 and 1870, or the emergence of anti-Semitic parties in Germany and Austria in the 19th century, Payne contended that classic fascism “was a direct product” of World War I, which destroyed the intellectual and cultural tenets that had buttressed Western civilization since the Enlightenment.  He also noted that the interwar decades constituted “the fascist era in Europe.”

It would help pin down the factors that produced fascism if we had a solid working definition of the concept.  Unhappily, as Payne noted, “[f]ascism is probably the vaguest of contemporary political terms,” largely “because the word itself has no implicit political references….”  Moreover, “most of the political movements in interwar Europe commonly termed fascist did not in fact use that name for themselves.”  Finally, “fascist movements differed from each other as significantly as they held notable new features in common.”

Nevertheless, Payne did boil the notion of fascism down to three common characteristics:  (1) the “fascist negations,” or what they were against, (2) “common points of ideology and goals,” and (3) “special features of style and organization.”  There were three “fascist negations”:  antiliberalism, anticommunism, and anticonservativism.  In terms of ideology and goals, fascists glorified nationalism, militarism, and an authoritarian, one-party, state.  They preferred corporatist economic structures, and appealed to collectivism in place of individualism.  Fascists tended to view the past, present, and future in millenarian images.  They also glorified youth and so-called manly virtues.  Finally, they developed a militant, quasi-military-style, party organization, led by a charismatic, omniscient, leader.

Specific fascist organizations or regimes, such as National Socialism in Germany, manifested other highly recognizable traits, such as anti-Semitism and military aggression, but this tendency did not characterize all fascist parties and/or regimes.

Interestingly, Payne had little to say about fascism in America.  He passed over the small, but vocal, fascistic outbursts in the 1930s, such as William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts, Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, Huey Long’s, and later Gerald L. K. Smith’s, Share the Wealth movement, and the German American Bund.  He pointed out that “the fascist characteristics of radical minority movements have also sometimes been pointed out.”  He noted that Marcus Garvey claimed to have invented fascism.  (One wonders what he would make of the Black Lives Matter movement.)  He also observed that some claimed César Chávez’s La Raza and the young radicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s manifested fascistic qualities, but he discounted such claims.

Although Payne concluded by suggesting that, “as the only major new ideology of the twentieth century,” attributes of fascism would probably continue to crop up “in radical movements and national authoritarian regimes in later times and other regions,” others have disputed that assertion.  In the 1981 expanded edition of Political Man, the late Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that, “[i]n the contemporary era, fascism appears to have disappeared as a viable political force in Western society.”  Several factors contributed to fascism’s waning fortunes, of course, but a major one was the delegitimation of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism following both countries’ devastating defeat in World War II.  Other fascistic leaders such as Spain’s Francisco Franco and Argentina’s Juan Peron met the Grim Reaper decades ago.

There are still many oppressive regimes in the world, but many, if not most, eschew fascistic rhetoric, if not methods, in favor of some form of socialism.  Contemporary autocratic regimes, such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation, are clearly authoritarian governments, but labeling them as fascistic stretches that term’s meaning up to, and probably past, the breaking point.  If Lipset was right, then, it’s probably best to think of classic European fascism as a movement of the period between 1919 and 1945.

What are we to make, then, of the American Left’s on-going propensity to call their foes “fascists, Nazis, etc.”?  Certainly it lends additional wisdom to George Orwell’s observation, expressed in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” that “[t]he word fascism now has no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”  If today’s Left does not like someone – George W. Bush or Donald Trump – or something – the Republican Party or conservatism – it tars that person or thing with the F-word, and hopes others will know that the tarred individual or entity isn’t “desirable.”

In keeping with Orwell’s contention that the corruption of the English language was inhibiting political communication is John Daniel Davidson’s observation that the Left’s promiscuous use of the F-word “is but one example of the pernicious habit of sloppy thinking that’s plaguing our public life.”  Davidson noted that words are ideas, and like ideas, they have consequences.  “The mishandling of ‘fascist’ and other such terms will, in time, cause us to lose grip of their meaning, which would be dangerous.”

Promiscuously hurling the F-word at people for no other reason than labeling them as irredeemably deplorable has two unfortunate consequences.  First, it inhibits people from comprehending an important, albeit horrible, political movement of the mid-20th century.  Let us remember Santayana’s observation that historical ignorance has serious consequences.   Second, and more important, it is deleterious to civil discourse.  You cannot have a civil conversation – which should be an essential feature of popular government – with those who make such historically and politically erroneous claims.  

It’s time for the Left to take that page out of its playbook.

 

 

 

Among the many epithets the Über-Left hurls against its opponents – racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, etc. – a persistent tendency has been to scream. “Fascist, Nazi, etc.”  

For whatever the reason, the Internet search engine, Google, has redefined fascism as a right-wing political and social movement.  Does Google want to get in on the Left’s favored tactic?

Lest anyone think that cries of “fascist, Nazi, etc.” somehow belong to the past, watch scenes of the violence at the University of California – Berkeley in early February 2017, and count the number of times the loonies charged that Milo Yiannopoulos – a flamboyantly gay Trump supporter – was a fascist, Nazi, etc.

Claiming that Yiannopoulos is a Hitlerite is strange indeed, if one remembers how the Nazis under Hitler treated homosexuals.

(I’m not rushing to Yiannopoulos’s defense.  Before the Berkeley riots I had not heard of him, and still don’t know what to make of him.)

If we’re going to bandy about the F-word – not that one, another one:  fascism – it behooves us to get a firm understanding of what the term means.  The corpus dealing with diverse facets of fascism in general and National Socialism in particular is too large and diverse to encapsulate in a short essay.  There is, however, a book by an expert on the subject:  Stanley Payne’s, Fascism:  Comparison and Definition (1980).  Payne’s book is concise, is not suffused with Marxist or neo-Marxist cant, and does not suffer from political correctness run amok.  Payne is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and is regarded as a major analyst of fascism.

Although there were harbingers of fascism in Europe as long ago as the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, Louis Napoléon’s authoritarian regime in France between 1852 and 1870, or the emergence of anti-Semitic parties in Germany and Austria in the 19th century, Payne contended that classic fascism “was a direct product” of World War I, which destroyed the intellectual and cultural tenets that had buttressed Western civilization since the Enlightenment.  He also noted that the interwar decades constituted “the fascist era in Europe.”

It would help pin down the factors that produced fascism if we had a solid working definition of the concept.  Unhappily, as Payne noted, “[f]ascism is probably the vaguest of contemporary political terms,” largely “because the word itself has no implicit political references….”  Moreover, “most of the political movements in interwar Europe commonly termed fascist did not in fact use that name for themselves.”  Finally, “fascist movements differed from each other as significantly as they held notable new features in common.”

Nevertheless, Payne did boil the notion of fascism down to three common characteristics:  (1) the “fascist negations,” or what they were against, (2) “common points of ideology and goals,” and (3) “special features of style and organization.”  There were three “fascist negations”:  antiliberalism, anticommunism, and anticonservativism.  In terms of ideology and goals, fascists glorified nationalism, militarism, and an authoritarian, one-party, state.  They preferred corporatist economic structures, and appealed to collectivism in place of individualism.  Fascists tended to view the past, present, and future in millenarian images.  They also glorified youth and so-called manly virtues.  Finally, they developed a militant, quasi-military-style, party organization, led by a charismatic, omniscient, leader.

Specific fascist organizations or regimes, such as National Socialism in Germany, manifested other highly recognizable traits, such as anti-Semitism and military aggression, but this tendency did not characterize all fascist parties and/or regimes.

Interestingly, Payne had little to say about fascism in America.  He passed over the small, but vocal, fascistic outbursts in the 1930s, such as William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts, Father Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, Huey Long’s, and later Gerald L. K. Smith’s, Share the Wealth movement, and the German American Bund.  He pointed out that “the fascist characteristics of radical minority movements have also sometimes been pointed out.”  He noted that Marcus Garvey claimed to have invented fascism.  (One wonders what he would make of the Black Lives Matter movement.)  He also observed that some claimed César Chávez’s La Raza and the young radicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s manifested fascistic qualities, but he discounted such claims.

Although Payne concluded by suggesting that, “as the only major new ideology of the twentieth century,” attributes of fascism would probably continue to crop up “in radical movements and national authoritarian regimes in later times and other regions,” others have disputed that assertion.  In the 1981 expanded edition of Political Man, the late Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that, “[i]n the contemporary era, fascism appears to have disappeared as a viable political force in Western society.”  Several factors contributed to fascism’s waning fortunes, of course, but a major one was the delegitimation of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism following both countries’ devastating defeat in World War II.  Other fascistic leaders such as Spain’s Francisco Franco and Argentina’s Juan Peron met the Grim Reaper decades ago.

There are still many oppressive regimes in the world, but many, if not most, eschew fascistic rhetoric, if not methods, in favor of some form of socialism.  Contemporary autocratic regimes, such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation, are clearly authoritarian governments, but labeling them as fascistic stretches that term’s meaning up to, and probably past, the breaking point.  If Lipset was right, then, it’s probably best to think of classic European fascism as a movement of the period between 1919 and 1945.

What are we to make, then, of the American Left’s on-going propensity to call their foes “fascists, Nazis, etc.”?  Certainly it lends additional wisdom to George Orwell’s observation, expressed in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” that “[t]he word fascism now has no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’”  If today’s Left does not like someone – George W. Bush or Donald Trump – or something – the Republican Party or conservatism – it tars that person or thing with the F-word, and hopes others will know that the tarred individual or entity isn’t “desirable.”

In keeping with Orwell’s contention that the corruption of the English language was inhibiting political communication is John Daniel Davidson’s observation that the Left’s promiscuous use of the F-word “is but one example of the pernicious habit of sloppy thinking that’s plaguing our public life.”  Davidson noted that words are ideas, and like ideas, they have consequences.  “The mishandling of ‘fascist’ and other such terms will, in time, cause us to lose grip of their meaning, which would be dangerous.”

Promiscuously hurling the F-word at people for no other reason than labeling them as irredeemably deplorable has two unfortunate consequences.  First, it inhibits people from comprehending an important, albeit horrible, political movement of the mid-20th century.  Let us remember Santayana’s observation that historical ignorance has serious consequences.   Second, and more important, it is deleterious to civil discourse.  You cannot have a civil conversation – which should be an essential feature of popular government – with those who make such historically and politically erroneous claims.  

It’s time for the Left to take that page out of its playbook.

 

 

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